Paintings of Havel open at DOX

A new cycle of 10 paintings by Tomáš Císařovský chronicle the late president's life

Painter Tomáš Císařovský’s latest work, a series of 10 paintings titled Intention and a Slight Coincidence, will be at the DOX Centre for Contemporary Art until March 6, 2017, along with a series of sketches and other paintings.

The new large-scale paintings capture moments from the life of playwright and president Václav Havel, who died in December 2011.

The paintings are post modern and a bit abstract in style, but also show a return to the idea of portraiture of officials and documentation of historical events. Císařovský first touched on these themes at the end of the 1980s with his Legionnaire and Masaryk series. Several of Císařovský’s paintings feature political figures from the past including Emperor Franz Joseph, acting Protector of Bohemia and Moravia Reinhard Heydrich and communist leader Gustáv Husák. None of them are typical straight-forward portraits, though. Each makes a comment on the subject.

The paintings featuring Havel cover his youth, his life as an author and dissident prior and then his presidential period.

“The series is neither a historical chronicle nor a mere celebration of this exceptional Czech personality. As such, it has no tendency toward either pathos or descriptive expression; instead, it is synthetic visual narration, painted with precisely obvious exaggeration and humor,” exhibition curator Martin Dostál said.

The paintings also all have elements that are open to interpretation. The 2013 painting On the Ramparts shows Havel with the Rolling Stones in front of Strahov Stadium. The band came in 1990 in one of the first big cultural events after the Velvet Revolution. Havel is seen playing cat's cradle with Mick Jagger, and there is a discarded part of an industrial machine in the foreground. Císařovský said the rusty drum with a gear on its top represented the recent past.

Challenge Accepted, also from 2013, is even more cryptic. Havel with the aid a South American native is pulling back on a bow and arrow. The top of the painting features a UFO, while the bottom has a giant lizard.

Some of the works require a bit of knowledge of Czech culture. Civic Education, from 2014, shows Havel carrying a naked Ivan Martin Jirous, also known as Magor, a poet from the Plastic People of the Universe who suffered in prison as a dissident. Magor is shown with broken eyeglasses and a hat covering his lap. In the 2014 painting A Royal Evening, Havel is depicted as St Nicholas (sv Mikuláš), with a flute-playing female angel and an accordion-playing devil. The trio is a part of Czech holiday culture. The Czech word for devil is “čert” and the accordion player is Jim Čert, who collaborated with the StB, the communist-era secret police while working as a folk-influenced musician. It is a visual pun, but also a comment on society.

The most ponderous perhaps is An Intimate Conversation, from 2013, showing Havel with a Buddhist monk who may be the Dalai Lama. Parts of a large broken doll or mannequin and human bones are in the foreground.

Císařovský began working on the first painting in January 2012, a month after Havel’s death. “I felt that it was the end of an era, that something was irretrievably changing in society. And it was once again time for me to touch upon important events in Czech history,” he said. The series took more than four years to complete. Císařovský also created a pen and wash works on paper showing other moments from Havel's life.

Císařovský knew Havel and discussed the painting series with him several times. But the painter never managed to get it started while Havel was alive. Even though he did not work on the series every day, he says he always carried the concept with him. He adds that he didn't idolize Havel, but that his generation did see Havel as the light at the end of the dark tunnel.

At the same time that Císařovský's Intention and a Slight Coincidence series is on display, DOX will continue with its large show of photographs of Havel by Tomki Němec and Bohdan Holomíček. That show ends Feb. 13, 2017.

For more information visit www.dox.cz (ENG)
Tomáš Císařovský www.cisarovsky.cz

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